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Legislators seek meeting with railroad execs in effort to salvage idled intermodal complex

CHARLESTON — A legislative interim committee is calling for a meeting with Norfolk Southern railway officials to discuss ways to save West Virginia’s $18 million investment in the $32 million Heartland Intermodal Gateway facility in Wayne County.

Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, on Tuesday called for Norfolk Southern officials to appear before the Oversight Commission on Transportation Accountability before the state moves forward with plans to auction off the idled 100-acre road-to-rail cargo transfer complex.

“They owe it to the state of West Virginia, and they owe it to Wayne County,” Plymale said of Norfolk Southern officials. “I still think an intermodal facility can work there.”

Del. Vernon Criss, R-Wood, agreed that legislators need to hear from officials from the railroad, which cut off rail service to the facility in October because of low volumes of rail-to-truck container shipments.

“A lot of times we have faceless corporations in this state that we sometimes have a difficult time dealing with,” Criss said.

Legislators last month objected to state plans to auction off the facility, which opened in December 2015 to fanfare as a potential economic game-changer for southwestern and central West Virginia.

The $32 million facility — to which the state contributed $18 million — is expected to sell at auction for $1 million to $2 million.

Transportation Secretary Byrd White told legislators Tuesday that the facility never came close to the minimum 15,000 “lifts” of containers to and from railcars that Norfolk Southern demanded, with a total of just 579 lifts for the entire 2018-19 budget year.

He said the state paid Parsec, a Cincinnati-based intermodal terminal management company, more than $500,000 a year to operate the facility. From December 2015 to September 2019, total state revenue from the complex was $30,797, he said.

Bid opening for a contract to retain a real estate auction house to sell the property was held Dec. 30, and the bids are being reviewed by the state Purchasing Division before a contract is awarded.

White indicated that the only known likely bidder wants to use the complex as a railcar maintenance facility.

Two Wayne County commissioners, however, told the committee they believe the Prichard complex is viable as an intermodal facility if operated and marketed properly.

“This administration and the previous administration failed miserably to do due diligence to market this facility,” Commission President Robert Pasley said. “Not only do they not have customers, they never even contacted customers in the Prichard Industrial Park and other local customers that would have used this facility.”

He said the commission has had no input regarding the complex, other than being invited to initial events that he said involved “back-slapping and happy-handing and everything about how great it was.”

Asked about the commission’s vision for the facility, Pasley said, “We want to see a working intermodal facility there. We want those jobs it will bring, and we want to see the spinoffs that will be created by such a facility.”

“We don’t want to see this revert to a weed field,” added Commissioner Kenneth Adkins. “Time is of the essence.”

White last month told legislators that, under the agreement with Norfolk Southern, which donated most of the acreage for the complex, if there are no rail operations on site for 24 months, the railroad can reclaim ownership of the property.

He said the state is spending about $10,000 to $15,000 a month to provide security, utilities and basic maintenance for the idled facility.

The facility is part of the $290 million Heartland Corridor project, which permits double-stacked intermodal trains to operate on Norfolk Southern rail lines from Norfolk, Virginia, to Columbus, Ohio, and to Chicago. That project required heightening clearances in 29 tunnels, most of which are in West Virginia.

Iran strikes back at US with missile attack at bases in Iraq

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump insisted “All is well!” on Tuesday after Iran fired surface-to-surface missiles at two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops. He promised to make a statement to the nation Wednesday morning about the precarious situation with Iran.

Trump offered no immediate indication of whether he would retaliate, and stayed out of sight Tuesday night as news of the missile strikes emerged.

But he tweeted that an assessment of casualties and damages was under way. The initial outlook, he said, was “So far, so good!”

Iran struck back at the United States for the killing of a top Iranian general early Wednesday, firing a series of ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops in a major escalation that brought the two longtime foes closer to war.

Iranian state TV said it was in revenge for the U.S. killing of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, whose death last week in an American drone strike near Baghdad prompted angry calls to avenge his slaying.

Soleimani’s killing and the strikes by Iran came as tensions have been rising steadily across the Mideast after President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally withdraw America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers. They also marked the first time in recent years that Washington and Tehran have attacked each other directly rather than through proxies in the region. It raised the chances of open conflict erupting between the two enemies, which have been at odds since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran initially announced only one strike, but U.S. officials confirmed both. There was no immediate word on injuries. U.S. defense officials were at the White House, likely to discuss options with Trump.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard warned the U.S. and its regional allies against retaliating over the missile attack against the Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar province. The Guard issued the warning via a statement carried by Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency.

“We are warning all American allies, who gave their bases to its terrorist army, that any territory that is the starting point of aggressive acts against Iran will be targeted,” The Guard said. It also threatened Israel.

After the strikes, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator posted a picture of the Islamic Republic’s flag on Twitter, appearing to mimic Trump, who posted an American flag following the killing of Soleimani and others Friday in a drone strike in Baghdad.

Ain al-Asad air base was first used by American forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, and later saw American troops stationed there amid the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. It houses about 1,500 U.S. and coalition forces.

About 70 Norwegian troops also were on the air base but no injuries were reported, Brynjar Stordal, a spokesman for the Norwegian Armed Forces, told The Associated Press.

Trump visited the sprawling Ain al-Asad air base, about 100 miles west of Baghdad, in December 2018, making his first presidential visit to troops in the region. He did not meet with any Iraqi officials at the time, and his visit inflamed sensitivities about the continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. Vice President Mike Pence also has visited the base.

Iranian State TV said the Guard’s aerospace division that controls Iran’s missile program launched the attack, which it said was part of an operation dubbed “Martyr Soleimani.” Iran said it would release more information later.

The U.S. also acknowledged another missile attack on a base in Irbil in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region.

“As we evaluate the situation and our response, we will take all necessary measures to protect and defend U.S. personnel, partners and allies in the region,” said Jonathan Hoffman, an assistant to the U.S. defense secretary.

Wednesday’s revenge attack came a mere few hours after crowds in Iran mourned Soleimani and as the U.S. continued to reinforce its own positions in the region and warned of an unspecified threat to shipping from Iran in the region’s waterways, crucial routes for global energy supplies. U.S. embassies and consulates from Asia to Africa and Europe issued security alerts for Americans.

A stampede broke out Tuesday at Soleimani’s funeral for a top Iranian general slain in a U.S. airstrike, and at least 56 people were killed and more than 200 were injured as thousands thronged the procession, Iranian news reports said.

Tuesday’s deadly stampede took place in Soleimani’s hometown of Kerman as his coffin was being borne through the city in southeastern Iran, said Pirhossein Koulivand, head of Iran’s emergency medical services.

There was no information about what set off the crush in the packed streets, and online videos showed only its aftermath: people lying apparently lifeless, their faces covered by clothing, emergency crews performing CPR on the fallen, and onlookers wailing and crying out to God.

“Unfortunately as a result of the stampede, some of our compatriots have been injured and some have been killed during the funeral processions,” Koulivand said, and state TV quoted him as saying that 56 had died and 213 had been injured.

Soleimani’s burial was delayed, with no new time given, because of concerns about the huge crowd at the cemetery, the semiofficial ISNA news agency said.

A procession in Tehran on Monday drew over 1 million people in the Iranian capital, crowding both main avenues and side streets in Tehran. Such mass crowds can prove dangerous. A smaller stampede at the 1989 funeral for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini killed at least eight people and injured hundreds.

Hossein Salami, Soleimani’s successor as leader of the Revolutionary Guard, addressed a crowd of supporters gathered at the coffin in a central square in Kernan. He vowed to avenge Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike Friday near Baghdad’s airport.

“We tell our enemies that we will retaliate but if they take another action we will set ablaze the places that they like and are passionate about,” Salami said.

“Death to Israel!” the crowd shouted in response, referring to one of Iran’s longtime regional foes.

Salami praised Soleimani’s work, describing him as essential to backing Palestinian groups, Yemen’s Houthi rebels and Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria. As a martyr, Soleimani represented an even greater threat to Iran’s enemies, Salami said.

Soleimani will ultimately be laid to rest between the graves of Enayatollah Talebizadeh and Mohammad Hossein Yousef Elahi, two former Guard comrades killed in Iran’s 1980s war with Iraq. They died in Operation Dawn 8, in which Soleimani also took part. It was a 1986 amphibious assault that cut Iraq off from the Persian Gulf and led to the end of the war that killed 1 million.

The funeral processions in major cities over three days have been an unprecedented honor for Soleimani, seen by Iranians as a national hero for his work leading the Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force.

The U.S. blames him for killing U.S. troops in Iraq and accused him of plotting new attacks just before he was killed. Soleimani also led forces supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad in that country’s civil war, and he also served as the point man for Iranian proxies in countries like Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Assad in Syria on Tuesday amid the tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Soleimani’s slaying already has led Tehran to abandon the remaining limits of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers as his successor and others vow to take revenge.

In Iraq, pro-Iranian factions in parliament have pushed to oust American troops from Iraqi soil following Soleimani’s killing. Germany and Canada announced plans to move some of their soldiers in Iraq to neighboring countries.

The U.S. Maritime Administration warned ships across the Mideast, citing the rising threats. “The Iranian response to this action, if any, is unknown, but there remains the possibility of Iranian action against U.S. maritime interests in the region,” it said.

Oil tankers were targeted in mine attacks last year that the U.S. blamed on Iran. Tehran denied responsibility, although it did seize oil tankers around the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf through which 20% of the world’s crude oil travels.

The U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said it would work with shippers in the region to minimize any possible threat.

The 5th Fleet “has and will continue to provide advice to merchant shipping as appropriate regarding recommended security precautions in light of the heightened tensions and threats in the region,” 5th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Joshua Frey told The Associated Press.

Iran’s parliament, meanwhile, has passed an urgent bill declaring the U.S. military’s command at the Pentagon and those acting on its behalf in Soleimani’s killing as “terrorists,” subject to Iranian sanctions. The measure appears to be in response to a decision by Trump in April to declare the Revolutionary Guard a “terrorist organization.”

The U.S. Defense Department used that terror designation to support the strike that killed Soleimani. The action by Iran’s parliament was done by a special procedure to speed it into law and also saw the lawmakers approve funding for the Quds Force with an additional 200 million euros, or about $224 million.

Demolition continues on 6th Avenue in Huntington

HUNTINGTON — The sounds of buildings being knocked to the ground have been heard along a portion of 6th Avenue in Huntington this week.

Crews continued this week to demolish buildings within the 1000 block of 6th Avenue.

One building formerly housed Upper Cuts Barber Shop before it moved to a new location on Hal Greer Boulevard. Another building housed Minuteman Press before it moved to a new 8th Avenue location.

— The Herald-Dispatch

US closes investigation of Justice family finances, brings no charges

CHARLESTON — Federal prosecutors have closed a nearly year-long investigation into West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s administration and his family business empire without bringing any criminal charges, a Justice family attorney said Tuesday morning.

Justice did not join his personal attorneys — George J. Terwilliger III, Michael Carey and Steve Ruby — for the announcement, though the news conference was held in the reception room of the Governor’s Office in the West Virginia Capitol.

“Governor Justice, the Justice family and the Justice companies have been cleared of any wrongdoing,” Terwilliger told reporters. Terwilliger said the governor’s legal team was told in a phone call that the investigation was over, and that federal officials did not provide any confirmation of that in writing.

Peter Carr, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, declined to comment on the announcement from the Justice camp.

The announcement was made a week into the new year in which Justice is seeking re-election and just a day before the state’s 2020 legislative session is scheduled to start. On Wednesday evening, Justice will deliver the State of the State address, the traditional forum for governors to announce their agenda for the session and the coming year.

DOJ public corruption investigators had issued at least three subpoenas to state agencies — the Commerce Department, the Department of Revenue and the Tax Division — seeking records about the state’s dealings with The Greenbrier resort, which Justice owns, and about a settlement Justice family companies made to resolve millions of dollars in overdue taxes.

“The direction we received from the governor and the Justice family was indeed to cooperate fully, tell them anything they need to know, give them any documents they need to have,” Terwilliger said. “We have nothing to hide. That’s exactly what we did.”

Speaking on behalf of the governor, the governor’s businesses and the governor’s family, Terwilliger said the investigation never should have happened because the Justices are good, hardworking people.

“Even now, even though you haven’t done anything wrong, it’s still tough to be involved in a federal investigation,” Terwilliger said. “It’s stressful. It’s expensive. Just the existence of the investigation hurts your reputation. It makes people who have been your friends or business partners just look at you differently. It damages relationships. The Justice family has been through all of that and more since the subpoenas were reported last year.”

The billionaire governor still faces a lawsuit over not residing in Charleston, as governors are required to do under the state Constitution, and lawmakers this session are expected to consider ethics reform legislation that would require governors to put their holdings into blind trusts, something Justice has refused to do with The Greenbrier and with his family’s coal operations.

“Regardless of the outcome of the DOJ’s look into the Justice family affairs, a blind trust law is still necessary,” said state Sen. William Ihlenfeld, a former federal prosecutor and Ohio County Democrat who is proposing ethics reforms legislation. “The conflicts of interest haven’t gone away for this governor, and they will surely exist for future governors, just not to the extent that they do for Justice.”

Last year, a joint investigation by the Charleston Gazette-Mail and the nonprofit journalism organization ProPublica detailed a variety of conflicts of interest surrounding the governor’s ownership of The Greenbrier and also reported on how Justice continues to guide his family’s business empire, despite saying he would be a full-time governor.

Terwilliger also represents Justice in the residency lawsuit.

Terwilliger is a partner at McGuire Woods, a Washington, D.C., law firm. He is the co-head of the firm’s white-collar practice and “strategic response and crisis management” practice group, according to the firm’s website.

Terwilliger also served as a deputy U.S. attorney general for President George H.W. Bush.

Carey previously worked as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, most notably overseeing the prosecution and conviction of former Gov. Arch Moore for corruption in 1990. He currently is a partner at Carey, Scott, Douglas & Kessler PLLC in Charleston, according to the firm’s website.

Ruby previously worked as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia. He led the prosecution of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship following the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, and now works at Bailey Glasser in Charleston.